US President Joe Biden will announce the end of US support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen in a major policy reversal from the previous administration that may alter the course of the conflict.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan confirmed Biden’s decision on Thursday, saying that the president will make the announcement during a foreign policy speech later in the day.
“He is going to announce an end to American support for offensive operations in Yemen,” Sullivan told reporters at a press briefing.
“That is a promise that he made in the campaign that he will be following through on.”
The top aide added that beyond ending US assistance to Riyadh’s war efforts, Washington will be playing a “more active and engaged” role in diplomacy “to bring an end to the conflict in Yemen.”
“That will include the naming of a special envoy, which will happen today,” he said. The National and Wall Street Journal had reported earlier on Thursday that the envoy will be veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking.
Saudi Arabia and its regional allies, namely the United Arab Emirates, have been conducting a bombing campaign in Yemen against the country’s Houthi rebels to restore the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.
Riyadh views the Houthis as Iranian proxies, but the rebels deny receiving material support from Tehran.
The conflict has killed more than 100,000 people and brought the already impoverished country to the verge of famine, in what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Former US President Donald Trump had resisted calls to end US assistance to the Saudi-led coalition. In 2019, he vetoed legislation to end that support.
Biden had pledged to “reassess” US-Saudi relations. Last month, the administration froze weapon sales to Riyadh and was reviewing purchases made by the UAE.
Ending the war
Anti-war activists and lawmakers have been pushing to end the US involvement in the Yemen war. Beyond weapon sales, Washington had been providing logistic support and sharing intelligence with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, welcomed the announcement but said the new administration needed to investigate whether any US officials were complicit in war crimes.
“This looks like a very positive step, but does not dismiss the fact that the US, according to investigations by Human Rights Watch and reports by a UN panel of experts, has risked complicity in committing war crimes over weapons sales to the Saudi-led coalition,” she told Middle East Eye.
During the past six years, legal scholars had warned that American support for the coalition put Washington in a position to be accused of providing material support to a military offensive that has continuously killed civilians.
In a detailed report in September, the United Nations asked the Security Council to refer the conflict to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for an investigation into potential war crimes by all parties.
The United States, not a party to the ICC, had objected to any investigations into itself or allies.
“As much as this is a welcomed step, its important that accountability comes as a central element of withdrawing support. And this means that the US has to seriously investigate whether US officials were involved in war crimes in Yemen,” Nasser said.
Ariel Gold, national co-director at the anti-war group Code Pink, said when her organisation started protesting against the war in 2015, “we were often out in the streets by ourselves with small numbers.”
Opposition against the war grew as the humanitarian catastrophe ushered by the fighting became more apparent.
“I feel celebratory, filled with hope,” Gold told MEE. “And yet, I also know that this isn’t the end. There’s still much more work to be done. This won’t end the war entirely, and we don’t know the full extent yet of what exactly Biden is going to do.”
Rasheed Alnozili, publisher of the Yemeni American News, a bilingual publication based in Detroit, welcomed the announcement and lauded Biden for fulfilling his campaign promise.
“But this is just the beginning,” Alnozili told MEE. “Ending US support for the Saudi-led coalition is a means. The goal should be ending the war altogether, which is a more difficult task.”
He called on the Biden administration to encourage Saudi-Iranian dialogue to address various conflicts in the region including Yemen.
The US role
Details about what Biden’s decision will entail and how exactly it will impact the conflict are sparse. It is not clear whether the decision will affect weapon sales or Washington’s role in the blockade that has been a catalyst for shortages and suffering.
“Certainly this is good news, as Biden seems to be following through on his campaign promise to end all US support for the war. However, it remains to be seen what his administration considers ‘offensive’ vs. ‘defensive,’ as Obama’s justification for entering this war was defending Saudi Arabia against Yemen’s Houthis,” said Shireen al-Adeimi, a Yemeni-American activist and professor at Michigan State University.
‘Today, we begin a new chapter of American leadership in Yemen’
The Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign started in 2015 with the full backing of then-President Barack Obama. Biden served as vice president at the time.
“In support of GCC actions to defend against Houthi violence, President Obama has authorised the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC-led military operations,” the National Security Council said in a statement on 25 March 2015.
Adeimi called for a complete halt of Washington’s involvement in the war, including “weapon sales, intelligence sharing, training soldiers and pilots, servicing vehicles and aircraft, and assisting with targeting.”
“The US role has been shameful and devastating to Yemen, and accountability must follow a full exit from this war,” she said.
Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who represents a large Yemeni community, welcomed the move by Biden, saying that the war had caused “immense pain and suffering”.
“By ending support for offensive operations, our government can focus on the diplomacy and humanitarian relief necessary to bring peace and safety to millions in the country and surrounding region… Today, we begin a new chapter of American leadership in Yemen, but that only means the hardest work is ahead of us,” Dingell said in a statement.